Universities are calling for Government-imposed controls on staff and salaries to be lifted on foot of research indicating that the sector in Ireland faces some of the greatest restrictions anywhere in Europe.
A European University Association (EUA) report states that Irish universities face greater controls and a lack of flexibility when it comes to staff recruitment, salary determination and promotions, with the country ranking 24th out of 35 European higher education systems.
The restrictions stem from an employment control framework imposed in 2010 by the then-government as an austerity-era spending measure aimed at reducing the public sector pay bill. It places a cap on overall staffing numbers and prohibits permanent contracts for noncore workers in universities.
Critics say the measure has led to a rise in more precarious and short-term contracts and an increase in student-staff ratios, which are about 20:1 in Ireland compared to a European norm of 15:1.
The EUA, which represents about 850 universities across Europe, ranks 35 higher education systems across Europe under headings such as financial, staffing, academic and organisational freedom or autonomy.
Irish universities rank 18th for autonomy in finances – such as the ability to borrow money, own assets and determine tuition fees – and is 12th for organisational autonomy, which encompasses presidential appointments, governing body membership and development of academic structures.
Ireland ranked third in academic autonomy, which includes determining overall student numbers, introducing degree programmes, as well as designing course content.
The findings are due to be presented on Thursday at a seminar hosted by the Irish Universities Association (IUA) at the Royal College of Physicians.
University of Limerick president Prof Kerstin Mey, chair of the IUA’s council, said while the ranking in academic autonomy is to be welcomed, staffing autonomy continues to be a problem in Irish universities.
“It is essential that the restrictive ceilings imposed by the employment control framework on staff numbers in third level are relaxed or removed,” Prof Mey said.
“The framework may have served a purpose more than a decade ago as an austerity measure, but it is now limiting the capacity of the sector to adequately cater for student needs and resulting in an increase in casual or part-time staffing.”
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has pledged to “look at” the framework in the context of increased funding for the sector.